Most literature authors write stories on different genres like poems, stories, and plays. These works are written using a variety of elements of literature for instance setting, themes, conflict, and characters. The following essay discusses the element of racism as a theme in Margaret Laurence’s short story “The Loons,” Langston Hughes’ poem, I Too, Sing America, and W.E.B Du Bois’ book, “The Souls of Black Folk.”
“The Loons” is a short story that was done by Margaret Laurence together with other stories in the sequence “A bird in the House” and was published in 1970. The story centers on the narrator and the main character Vanessa McLeod, a white girl and her youth days in a fictional town known as Manawaka, Manitoba in Canada (Laurence, 2001). From Vanessa’s eyes, the audience is able to see the alienation and racism that Piquette Tonerre, a girl of Métis origin faces in society. The story has been set just before Vanessa’s father passes on and it helps her to open her eyes and see the suffering, cultural alienation, and racial discrimination of the Métis people a subgroup of the Canadian Aborigines.
In the first part, Vanessa finds the Métis to be people who do not fit in the society due to their unknown descent. Her grandmother describes the Métis to be people of “…neither flesh, fowl nor good salt herring” (Laurence, 2001). This statement describes the people who are French half-breeds and their language is neither French nor Cree. These people do not belong to the Creoles who live on the mountains and neither to the French. They are a people who society alienates and discriminates because they do not belong. Grandmother McLeod does not want anything to do with Piquette. At one point, the McLeod family is planning to go for a trip. Vanessa’s father, Ewen invites Piquette. Grandmother McLeod refuses to go if the “half-bred” youngster comes along. This is a clear indicator of social prejudice. Piquette’s attitude and world is misinterpreted and misunderstood because the dominant whites chose so. Beth, Vanessa’s mother also feels that Piquettes’s company will affect her children. Vanessa’s father’ good intention of inviting Piquette to their holiday trips illustrates the theme of racism and social alienation in the story.
Piquette refuses to acknowledge the invitation to play with Vanessa. Vanessa asks her “want to come and play?” She retorts sharply with a scorn “I ain’t kid” much to Vanessa’s surprise (Laurence, 2001). This illustrates the nasty experiences of racial and social alienation that Vanessa has gone through. She does not want to be friendly to the whites. The Métis are a rejected lot and she feels things should remain the way they are. This shows that she had been hurt by the whites and does not trust any of them. Piquette feels that she can do nothing much when it comes to bridging the gap between the whites and the Métis and ignores all the attempts to socialize with Vanessa. The whites have a good life of luxury. The McLeod’s have a cottage on Lake Diamond. They can afford to spend on holidays while the socially ostracized Métis live in despair, poverty, and illness.
Laurence uses irony to bring out the theme of racism. Vanessa’s father passes on due to pneumonia that he contracted during the trip to Diamond Lake. Ewen was a doctor who had helped Piquette when she was sick. When he passes on, Piquette tells Vanessa that “…in the whole of Manawaka, your father was the only person who ever did anything good to me” (Laurence, 2001). Vanessa’s emotions are concealed. However, this confession shows that she and her people are isolated, uncared for, and lonely. In this story, the birds known as loons have been symbolically used to highlight the character of the Métis. They have an uncaring attitude and only show their emotions at night. They cry at night meaning that they express themselves rarely much to none’s care.
Piquette makes an effort to be accepted in the racially divided community. She tries to get married to a white man so that she can feel part of the white class that so much rejected her people. She tells Vanessa “…am getting married to my boyfriend…an English fella…”She tells her that all the “old bitches” in town will be surprised (Laurence, 2001). This implies that the people she calls “old bitches” castigated them. They will be surprised that one of them has gone against their norms by marrying a half-breed. As for Piquette, this symbolizes her dreams of being accepted and loved by the white people. Her marriage is characterized by domestic violence and soon her husband burns all her children in the house.
The fate of Piquette is like that of the loons. Vanessa’s father once said that the loons had been at Diamond Lake even before they (the whites) settles there. When Vanessa’s father tells Piquette of the situation she replies who cares after a bunch of squawking birds. This shows that the Métis people just like the loons were a mess and none cares for them. Their eventual destiny is death just like Piquette and her Métis people (Laurence, 2001).
Laurence uses this story to highlight the complexity and yet simple dimension of human nature. “The Loons” illustrates the many vectors of racial oppression. It shows the reader that none chose where to be born but people are discriminated against because of irreversible qualities like skin of color and descent. These things dictate how people coexist in society and yet none has authority over them. Racism is indeed a making of the human mind.
James Langston Hughes was born in 1902 and passed on in 1967. He was born to parents of mixed descent (African American, Jewish and European) but that did not deter his being a subject of racism. Most of his literary works are poems that illustrate racism from personal experiences. He wrote the poem “I, Too” and dedicated it to the father of Pan-Africansim, W.E.B Dubois. He wrote this poem after being denied entry into a ship because of his color.
In this poem, he uses simple language, and imagery to express his feelings towards the theme of racism. “I, Too” is a poem that reveals the injustices that are tied to racism. The poet uses himself to present the experiences of people of his origin, the blacks, minorities and people of mixed origin or descent. He expresses his genuine emotions as a person of mixed descent. He says that the whites treat people of different races as an embarrassment. The words “I, Too” could be interpreted to mean “even me am human like you (whites) too”. Langston is treated as half a person and whenever given chance, the whites show him that he is an inferior person.
When Langston wrote this poem, African Americans and Native Americans (Red Indians) were not accepted anywhere on American soil. They were discriminated against, subjected to Jim Crow rules, and killed with violence. Their education, social, and public amenities like means of transport were separated. Blacks were not allowed to go against the rules and wishes of the whites. The division was clear on the economic side. The whites were doing well while the blacks labored for little gains.
This poem illustrates how America as a nation attempts to cover up its racial discrimination difficulties. Langston uses this poem to communicate the significance of racial equality. He wants the audience to understand that his works are not just a personal experience but it is a voice or the feelings of his people.
In the first line, he says, “I, Too, Sing America” (Langston, 1932). This shows the national anthem. It symbolizes national unity and shows the audience that Langston as well as his people also belongs to America irrespective of the maltreatment. The most important part of this poem is this line. Even though he is just a servant, he is also an American citizen. He should be free to enjoy all the civil liberties and privileges like his white brothers. In the next line, his poetic tone changes from a patriotic one to that of anger and strength. Langston acknowledges his colour with the words “…am their darker brother…” (Langston, 1932).
When visitors come, the Negro is sent to eat in the kitchen. This sentence shows that the Whites do not accept that the Negroes are people like them. This shows how the whites perceived the blacks at that time. They treated them as half human beings who are supposed to only do odd jobs. It shows that the white man was embarrassed to be associated with the blacks and his company irritated him. A black man is a lowlife and it should be sent away when visitors come. This sentence shows the place of the Negro at that time especially in the employment sector. He was supposed to do the hard and dehumanizing task because he is not a “full” human being like the whites. Their social status in the community is shown in this sentence. They should be kept off, far away from mixing with visitors and other people. This illustrates social discrimination of the blacks in America.
Langston is sent to eat in the kitchen, alone. He laughs and says that he will eat and grow strong (Langston, 1932). He has hope that tomorrow he will no longer eat in the kitchen. He will use his strength to get into the social places. This shows that the Negro will one day fight for equality. He knows he is human and needs to be treated right. In the meantime, he accepts because he is not yet powerful, politically to influence his place in the racially charged society.
In the last stanza, he suddenly changes his attitude to that of courage. Racial discrimination does not kill the fighting spirit of the servant but strengthens him. He grows strong and he eats despite the problems he faces in the community. Tomorrow, the Negro will sit at the table and at with company. None will dare to isolate him. Langston uses this word to illustrate bravery of the blacks especially W.E.B Du Bois. Although African Americans were physically subjugated, their self-esteem had power. People like Du Bois, grew strong irrespective of racial discrimination and grew to fight it back.
Besides being strong and shaming the whites of their racial actions, Langston appreciates the black color and acclaims its beauty. The poem ends with the poet reinforcing that irrespective of racism, he has to remind the reader, the whites that he is part of the great nation, America.
Langston uses a beautiful voice, to render power to his poems and make them moving. His tone changes through the poem as he psychologically appeals to the emotions of the audience. He feels that all Americans are entitled to freedom of all means and racial equality. Langston’s poem served as an encouragement to people of his race by appreciating their color, strength, and joy.
The last genre to be examined is the book “The Souls of Black Folk” which was written by William Edward Burghart (W.E.B) Du Bois. Du Bois was born in 1868 and passed on in 1963. This book, “The Souls of Black Folk” was his greatest piece of nonfiction. Du Bois was born and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a town that had a black population of 2%. His experience as a black made him to author this book.
In this book, he discusses a “problem.” He says that people (whites) have never had the audacity to ask him what it feels like to be a problem. Du Bois and his people are considered a problem because they are black. He highlights his experience at school about a girl who refuses his visiting card because of his color. This experience showed the author that he is different. After that, Du Bois decided to live within the “veil” and hated those who lived outside.
D Bois says that the Negro has a double conscious. He sees himself first through his eyes and then through the eyes of other (whites). The discrimination and maltreatment make him think of himself as a lesser being. The Negro struggles to rise above racism and emerge as the Negro as an American and a human being like any other.
During the civil War, many African Americans died in it. Those who got out of the battlefield alive were given promises that were not fulfilled. Du Bois feels that they were ignored because of their color. The “veil” of color is where racism lies. After the war, the Negroes were given civil liberties like voting. However after the war, there came the Reconstruction Era and their civil liberties were retracted. They were not allowed to vote and own property. Their essential rights were inhibited because of their color. Du Bois says that the Negro should never be judges on the same platform like any other person because they are in oppression and not yet free.
Du Bois uses “color” to show the problem that the Emancipated slaves faced. The North did not know what to do with slaves while the South still held them in bondage. After the war, all laves were free men and women. In 1865, the Congress put a Freedmen’s Bureau into law. This Bureau dealt with the freed people, refugees, and the abandoned lands. This Bureau helped the blacks to get education by setting up schools and relive their suffering as slaves. At the end of the Reconstruction Era in 1876, this Bureau was stopped and the “problems” of the problem (black man) increased (Du Bois, 1996).
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The blacks were socially discriminated against. They were barred from public places and were not allowed to use any service deemed “white.” Although the Bureau had established black schools, the education was poor when compared to the high quality of education at the white schools. In the employment sector, the blacks were relegated to menial and hard jobs owing to their poor education background. They were also paid poorly making them live like slaves. In the judicial level, they had no justice. They had laws that defined their life for instance “the infamous Jim Crow rules” that assigned them their schools and education system.
Du Bois used this book to highlight people like Booker T. Washington who felt that the blacks should assimilate themselves and live like whites. Du Bois felt that the “Talented Tenth” of African American should be educated like the whites instead of the industrial training that Washington advocated (1996). Du Bois complements people like Fredrick Douglass who stood firmly for their ideals. Fredrick insisted on “total assimilation through self assertion and nothing more.” Du Bois argued that the Negro could not progress if he is not educated, given freedom to vote, economically empowered and legal superiority (Du Bois, 1996). This book highlights the problem of racism in America in the 20th and 21st century. Du Bois set the pace for other black writers and civil rights activists like Dr Martin Luther King.